The 2016 S3 is the lawn dart in Audi's family of A3-label small cars. It's a cousin to the A3 four-door sedan, the two-door A3 convertible, and a plug-in-hybrid A3 e-tron wagon.
But by far, it's the most engaging member of that clan to drive. It's quick on its heels, stuffed with speedy hardware that vaults over the A3's more pedestrian stuff. That's why the clearest competitor for the S3 is--Motor Authority's Best Car To Buy 2014,-- the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG .
The S3 has a strong streak of mainstream appeal. Audi has a successful styling formula, and the A3 doesn't stray from it one iota. It doesn't look short or blunt as small cars so easily can. It wears LED eyeshadow for a stock Audi visual signature. A full set of LED headlights turns that shape into an instantly identifiable shape, when it's seen in a rearview mirror.
Inside the A3, drivers find a spartan workplace, nothing like the outrageous and cool A7. No lavish wood lives here, leather is rarer too. Still, the A3 has a confident set of styling details in its cockpit, like the round vents that cut bullet holes in the dash.
The S3 doesn't indulge any fuel-saving measures. It's a heavy-breathing turbo-4 under the hood, spinning out 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. The inline-4 has the guts to move the S3 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, and on to a top speed of 155 mph. The turbo-4's low torque peak, down around 2,000 rpm, helps it get there and it revs through a peak-power point of 5,000 rpm with solid thrust and a happy soundtrack.
Audi only sells the S3 with a 6-speed, paddle-shifted, dual-clutch gearbox. It feeds power to all four wheels and pulls terrifically through lower gears. It's too bad we miss out on the European model's 6-speed manual, even though deep in our hearts we know the dual-clutch shifts more quickly and neatly.
Dig deeply into the S3 and its fundamentals reveal themselves to be battle-ready. The front strut suspension pairs with a 4-link torsion-beam rear. The S3 rides about an inch lower than the standard A3. Adaptive dampers with magnetic control are available as an option; the dampers and the S3's electric power steering can be configured for sport or comfort response via Drive Select.
We've hustled the S3 through southern France, with its adaptive dampers set in standard mode and its steering and gearbox dialed to sport. In those modes, it has the vigor of the Benz CLA45 AMG. The steering has variable ratios (with gear teeth spaced strategically across its span) and heavy weighting that works well on kinky paths. The dampers give it a more supple ride that filters out the roughness that its upsized, 19-inch ContiSport summer tires could have imparted.
The A3/S3's small size is cloaked from its front passengers, but those in the back will see through its flaws immediately. The S3 is 175.9 inches long, and rides on a 103.4-inch wheelbase, which makes it about 9 inches shorter than a Benz CLA. It has almost 3 fewer inches of wheelbase, but in fairness the CLA uses up that advantage in its laid-back profile (it leaves plenty of usable space under the glass). The Audi is wider, slightly, and in the front seat there's a decent amount of headroom. The seat levers to adjust height and rake are confusing at first; the seats themselves are bolstered well. A flat-bottom steering wheel opens up a bit more room for the driver's legs.
The S3 doesn't have abundant back-seat space. Tall doors make it easier to climb in than a CLA, but knee and shoulder room are tight. The split-folding rear seats expand the S3's 13.7-cubic-foot trunk.
The S3 offers a slew of safety gear, starting with simulated torque vectoring across the front wheels, delivered by the S3's anti-lock brakes. Adaptive cruise control maintains its distance even at low speeds, and Audi fits the S3 with blind-spot monitors. The S3 scores five stars overall in the NHTSA's testing, with four stars in front crash and rollover. The IIHS has not put the S3 through its paces yet, although it scores the very similar A3 sedan with top scores in all categories, qualifying it for Top Safety Pick+ status.
Every S3 comes with power locks, windows, and mirrors; leather; cruise control; Bluetooth; and a panoramic sunroof, as well as a LCD display screen for the infotainment system. That interface also uses a touch-surface knob on the console, which permits users to write out letters and numbers as an override to the voice and button commands.
Audi claims its cars are among the most connected in the world, and the S3 backs that up with Audi Connect. It's a package of data and connectivity gear that includes Google Earth maps delivered by AT&T 4G in-car data. The S3 can connect to 8 devices and can stream their music through its head unit--and through a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system with 705 watts of output, when it's ordered.
Changes for the 2016 model are largely aesthetic. The S3 is--now offered in a Black Optic Performance package, which includes Audi Sport multi-spoke Titanium matte wheels, the Black Optic exterior kit, and Audi magnetic ride control. Other new options include red brake calipers, an S Sport seat package, and a 19-inch wheel package.--
The 2016 Audi S3 is--priced from $43,495 for the Premium Plus trim. A Prestige S3 runs from $48,650. The base car represents a good-sized discount over the CLA 45 AMG's $48,000 pricetag, but there's a slight performance difference, too. Audi will try to leapfrog the CLA in 2017 when it unleashes an RS 3.
The EPA rates the Audi S3 at 23 mpg city, 31 highway, 26 combined on premium gasoline.
- 2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class
- 2016 Buick Verano
- 2016 Acura ILX
- 2016 BMW 2-Series
Now that compact luxury cars have begun to proliferate, some are bringing high-powered companions like the Audi S3 to market along with the more sedate versions. The S3's a shot straight at the Mercedes-Benz CLA, which comes in CLA45 AMG trim and is so good, it was named Motor Authority's Best Car To Buy 2014. The CLA has a very similar layout to the S3: turbocharged 4-cylinder, standard all-wheel drive, sporty looks and dynamics. Buick's Verano offers a turbocharged powertrain, but it's avoiding the whole sport-sedan fray, with its very well-composed ride and quiet cabin. The Acura ILX is more of the same, only less--less satisfying, less quiet, less appealing; for 2016 it does get an updated powertrain with a slightly more powerful four-cylinder and a dual-clutch transmission, but it can't match the S3's power. BMW's 2-Series has a similar price, as well as a high-performance M235i model and optional all-wheel drive, although the highest performers use rear-wheel drive.